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Celebrating the 50th anniversary of DNA

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Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA

Most New Zealanders remember 1953 as the year Sir Edmund Hilary knocked the "xxxxxx off". It was also the year that New Zealander Maurice Wilkins played a part in one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century - or any century, for that matter - the discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the code for all life.

In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for finally solving the puzzle.

Maurice Wilkins was born in Pongaroa in the Wairarapa, and then moved to Kelburn, Wellington. His family returned to Britain when Maurice was just six-and-a-half, and though he never returned, he still has clear and cherished memories of his New Zealand childhood. He regards himself as a New Zealander still.

In an interview with Kim Hill in 2001, he said that he and his sister both regarded those early years in Wellington as "probably the most enjoyable part of our whole lives … the New Zealand connection is extremely important to me… not to be regarded as a New Zealander is something which I find very dispiriting because I feel that my life in New Zealand - those experiences - did so much to put my life on the right kind of track".

Professor Wilkins (86) lives in London and is working hard to complete his autobiography which will be published early next year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary celebrations in Britain.

A number of science organizations* have contributed to a portrait of Wilkins, commissioned by the Royal Society of New Zealand and the NZ Portrait Gallery. The painting will be unveiled at an event in London on 26 November, jointly organised and hosted by the NZ High Commission and Kings College London. The portrait has been painted by pre-eminent New Zealand artist, Juliet Kac, who lives in Brighton, U.K. The event will be attended by a number of ex-pat scientists living in the Greater London area.

The Royal Society of New Zealand has also commissioned a poem by Chris Orsman, International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, to be read to Maurice on 26 November by New Zealander writer Emily Perkins, who is currently living in London. The Minister of Research, Science and Technology, Hon. Pete Hodgson, is supporting the Royal Society of New Zealand's plans to coordinate celebrations of the 50th anniversary of DNA in 2003. "Unlocking the secret of DNA has been enormously significant for the advancement of the life sciences," Mr Hodgson said. "Vast areas of new knowledge and new technologies have opened in the last 50 years, yet we have only just begun to explore the possibilities. New Zealand should be very proud of Maurice Wilkins for his contribution to this scientific revolution. It is indeed something to celebrate."

The celebrations will profile the work of many New Zealand scientists following this seminal discovery, including the sophisticated forensic science techniques practised by the Institute of Environmental Science & Research Ltd (ESR) and the fascinating scientific sleuthing of the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution in Palmerston North, tracing the origins of Pacific peoples. New Zealand's acknowledged "father of DNA", Emeritus Professor George Petersen from Otago University, was in the forefront of early work in the 1960s and 70s to develop methods for determining the detailed chemical sequence of DNA that culminated in the human genome programme.

He trained a generation of New Zealand scientists who have gained prominence in DNA studies, including Dr Diana Hill, who chairs the Marsden Fund for research, and Professor Warren Tate, Professor of Biochemistry at Otago University.

President of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Sir Gil Simpson, said New Zealanders have reason for great pride in our history and current achievements in this area.

"Everyone knows Sir Edmund Hilary. New Zealand scientists like Wilkins should be just as well known. Generally, Wilkins' contribution has been somewhat overshadowed by those of Watson and Crick, two highly colourful and eccentric personalities.

"This anniversary of the discovery of DNA's structure gives us an opportunity to think seriously about how the knowledge gathered in the last 50 years can best be used to benefit humankind," said Sir Gil.

For more information about Maurice Wilkins, see http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/wilkins.html

For further information, contact Glenda Lewis, Royal Society of New Zealand, glenda.lewis@rsnz.org

*Contributors to the portrait are: Auckland University of Technology Massey University, College of Sciences NZ Institute of Chemistry NZ Institute of Physics NZ Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biosciences Royal Society of New Zealand UNESCO Victoria University of Wellington, Faculty of Science Wellington Branch of the Royal Society


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